The East Sider

The East Sider: Tommy Whalen

Why a Local Filmmaker Chose Providence Over Hollywood

East Side Monthly Magazine ·

Providence is a far cry (and distance) from Los Angeles, but one local screenwriter-producer opted to leave that undisputed mecca of filmmaking to pursue a career back home in Rhode Island – and he has no regrets about it.

Fox Point resident Tommy Whalen was born in Providence to a family of Rhode Islanders but moved to Dighton, MA at age five. He majored in English at UMass Dartmouth, where he took a class with a professor who had previously taught an Oscar-winning screenwriter; Whalen was inspired. During his junior year, a writer for The Simpsons, Mike Reiss, came to give a talk at the university. Afterwards, Whalen asked Reiss what he had to do to make it as a screenwriter; “move to LA” was one of his half-joking requirements.

But Whalen did it, without knowing anybody there, and started taking summer extension classes at UCLA. He was accepted into Loyola Marymount’s selective screenwriting program, but left when he scored an appointment interning at 20th Century Fox in script development work for The Shield; that ended with the writer’s strike in 2007, but he found his next internship at the production company Benderspink doing work including narration and voiceover scripting for the popular show Heroes.

Whalen returned to Rhode Island in 2010 to work on a film. It lost its funding, and he deliberated his next move. After subbing for a bit, he accepted a teaching job at Joseph Case High School in Swansea on the same day he learned the film’s funding was back on again; for a while, he worked both jobs. He moved to the East Side in 2012 and currently lives on Preston and Governor streets with his fiance; they met at Andreas on Thayer Street.

“It’s a great area to be in; we really don’t want to leave. I’ve been to a lot of places,” – 39 states and 25 countries, to be exact – “and there’s nothing like New England,” he says.

Whalen continues filmmaking in RI working with fellow UMass alum Don Burton. Their first short, It Had to be Done is a modernized adaptation of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart and won the 2014 Providence Underground Film Festival. Their latest, Always Stop for Rabbits, already played at a festival in Texas and is showing at another in Tangier, Morocco in April. As of this writing, they are waiting to hear back from 24 more festivals. He also channels his craft through teaching, which he loves, and is responsible for starting the popular New Media program at Joseph Case.

If you had one wish to enhance life on the East Side, what would it be?
“I’d like more connectivity between the universities and residents. They feel somewhat isolated, and that relationship should be more transparent. I’m hoping for an easier way to source student interns to work on my films, and there should also be more effort to keep students here post-graduation. I would also love to see a great craft beer bar on the East Side – something like What Cheer Tavern off Allens Ave.”

To learn more about Tommy Whalen and his film work, visit


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